Beautiful Book Beginnings

I love it when books start off by caressing your reading muscles.

Some books just start off feeling right, like you have slipped into a warm bath. Here are three examples (feel free to disagree, that’s what the comments are for).

The first one is from John Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath. I new right from the first words that I was in for something special, and so far I have been blown away by the quality of Steinbeck’s writing. Here is the first paragraph, about the weather, not normally a subject I would think books would be able to start with and keep the reader’s attention.

The Grapes of Wrath

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that they gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try anymore. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

The next two are from my favorite “literary” writer, Michael Ondaatje. The first is from the English Patient, a book I try to read every year and always find something new to admire. The second paragraph is from my second-favorite of his books, Anil’s Ghost, probably an easier book for those new to Ondaatje’s prose.

The English Patient

She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.

In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.

She turns into the room which is another garden – this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.

Anil’s Ghost

When the team reached the site at five-thirty in the morning, one or two family members would be waiting for them. And they would be present all day while Anil and the others worked, never leaving; they spelled each other so someone always stayed, as if to ensure that the evidence would not be lost again. This vigil for the dead, for those half-revealed forms.

During the night, plastic sheet covered the site, weighted down with some stones or pieces of iron. The families knew the approximate hour the scientists would arrive. They removed the sheetning and got closer to the submerged bones until they heard the whine of the four-wheel drive in the distance. One morning Anil found a footprint in the mud. Another day a petal.

The English Patient is actually half of what propels me as a writer.

The first, and perhaps more important, is that I remember reading a book of short stories that was really good overall. But one of the stories was so bad that I thought “Hey, I can do better than this, and this shit got published.” And so I started.

Oh, and The English Patient? Yeah…. I want to write like that. It’s like I’m running. The starting line was the awful short story, the little gun that said “Go!”. And the finish line, for me, is and will always be Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

9 thoughts on “Beautiful Book Beginnings”

  1. ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’

    I was not impressed by the opening lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude at first, but then, halfway through the book, I came to love them.

    To tell you the truth, I like striking beginnings more than descriptions of places or events. But it takes a lot of confidence and style to start with a description, and Ondaatje has both.

    I haven’t yet read the English Patient but I did see the movie, and I really liked the storyline. I will read the book later this year or early 2013.


  2. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
    A beginning of a chapter, I think, rather than a book, but a captivating beginning nonetheless (also, an example of bathos, see here:

    My favourite first lines are, however, from Alan Paton’s Cry, the beloved country (The title of which is the beginning of my favourite quote, too, but that’s another story):

    There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbroke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Imzimkolo, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.


  3. I would say to each his own. I find that the beginning of The English Patient is poorly written. Three paragraphs, six times “she”. It’s scary.

    I know this will be kind of out of topic but my favourite book beginning is from “L’Étranger”by Camus :

    “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. J’ai reçu un télégramme de l’asile: Mère décédée. Enterrement demain. Sentiments distingués. Cela ne veut rien dire. C’était peut-être hier”

    Unfortunately, there’s no english translation as powerful as the original.


  4. Great choices, sir.

    I tend to agree with Mr. Hat about the striking beginnings, but if the author is skilled enough to pull off a heavily descriptive opener, that is just another feather in the cap.

    I have not read The English Patient, but I’m going to assume there is a reason for all of the “she” drops?


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